Fantasy winners and losers of the coaching changes
Now that the coaching carousel has finally stopped (thanks for the delay, Josh McDaniels), we get our first crack at predicting which players may or may not benefit from their new coaches. Out of the seven positions filled, only two were filled with coaches with prior head-coaching experience. The trend emulates the recent success stories of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia taking coaches with no Head coach experience but plenty of potential. Let’s take a look at the winners and losers of the Head coaching moves.
Head coach: Steve Wilks
Winner: David Johnson. While the running back Johnson may be the only Cardinals skill position player still on the roster in 2018, he also stands to gain the most after Wilks hired Mike McCoy to be his offensive coordinator. In five seasons as an offensive coordinator with the Broncos, McCoy had three offenses rank in the top-10 in pass attempts and three that ranked in the top-10 in rush attempts. This shows McCoy to be flexible enough to feed his best players. For example, the 2011 Broncos were first in rush attempts and last in pass attempts when Tim Tebow took most of the snaps at quarterback. The next year, when Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, Denver dropped to ninth in the league in pass attempts but 10th in pass attempts. Johnson is the best player on the team, if not one of the best in the entire NFL, and should get fed.
Loser: The tight end position. Not counting the 2012 Broncos when Peyton Manning threw 583 times, no tight end on a team where McCoy was the offensive coordinator has seen more than 50 targets in a season. So whether it’s Ricky Seals-Jones, Jermaine Gresham, Troy Niklas or a player not yet on the team, I wouldn’t look for a lot of fantasy value.
Head coach: Matt Nagy
Winner: Mitchell Trubisky. I kind of want to say the whole team, because Nagy is the latest head coach to be tapped after working with Andy Reid sometime during their career. Reid’s former coaches have included Super Bowl winners John Harbaugh and now Doug Pederson along with Super Bowl 50 runner-up Ron Rivera. For the Bears, many players should benefit from Nagy, but we’ll zero in on Trubisky, who should progress in his second year. In Nagy’s brief coaching career (2013-2017) as first quarterbacks coach then offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, he oversaw Alex Smith’s successful tenure. Under Nagy, Smith’s 65 percent completion rate was fourth-best while his 1.35 percent interception rate was second-best, only to Tom Brady. It should also be noted that during the last month of the season, when Nagy was handed play-calling duties, Smith was fantasy’s seventh-highest-scoring quarterback.
Loser: The WR2. While the top receiver in the Chiefs offense has had no issue while Nagy has been around, averaging 100-plus targets, the second receiver has been another story. That role in Kansas City has seen an average of just 62 targets per-season. It was no different when Nagy was calling the plays during that last month of the season either. In Weeks 13-16 (Week 17 saw top receiver Tyreek Hill rest on the bench), Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson saw just 5.5 targets, three receptions, 38 receiving yards and no scores.
Head coach: Matt Patricia
Winner: The passing game. With Patricia retaining the best-named offensive coordinator in the NFL, Jim Bob Cooter, Matthew Stafford and company should continue to light up fantasy leagues. In the two full seasons as Detroit’s offensive coordinator, Cooter has overseen a Lions team that has finished 11th and 10th in pass attempts. Stafford has thrown for an average of 4,400 yards and 26 touchdowns each season and finished as fantasy’s sixth-highest-scoring quarterback in 2016 and seventh in 2017. The receivers have enjoyed success under Cooter too with Golden Tate averaging 127 targets, 91 receptions, 1,040 yards and four touchdowns while Marvin Jones has averaged 105 targets, 58 receptions, 1,015 yards and six touchdowns. Both also finished as top-20 fantasy receivers last year.
Loser: The running game. Whether it’s Ameer Abdullah or someone else starting in the backfield for Detroit, it won’t be a fruitful fantasy position. The Lions have ranked second-to-last in rush attempts in both years under Cooter’s play-calling. That could all change if the Lions bring in a game-changer (Saquon Barkley, Le’Veon Bell) but anything short of that means another fantasy disappointment.
Head coach: Frank Reich
Winner: Jack Doyle. After the false start with Josh McDaniels, the Colts settled on former Eagles offensive coordinator Reich. There’s no doubt Reich benefitted from a masterful offensive Eagles performance in the Super Bowl in getting the Colts job, but he also had a decent resume before then. In his four years as an offensive coordinator (two with the Chargers, two with the Eagles), two of his teams had top-10 offenses in yards. However, most of his success occurred at the tight end position. In the four years he was offensive coordinator, his tight ends (Antonio Gates, Zach Ertz) averaged 100 targets, 69 receptions, 773 yards and seven touchdowns. Between the two, they averaged a sixth-place fantasy finish and never finished lower than 10th. Enter Doyle, who had an excellent 2017 with 102 targets, 80 receptions, 690 yards and four touchdowns, good for a ninth-place fantasy finish. His superior production should continue under Reich no matter who the quarterback is in 2018.
Loser: T.Y. Hilton. While Reich has certainly led successful offenses, it doesn’t mean everyone is as successful as, say, the tight end. The leading wide receiver on each of Reich’s four teams he was an offensive coordinator (Keenan Allen, Jordan Matthews, Alshon Jeffery) averaged 112 targets, 69 receptions, 775 yards and five touchdowns. Compare that to Hilton’s averages the last five seasons of 133 targets, 76 receptions, 1,193 yards and five touchdowns and Hilton could be in for a down year.
Head coach: Pat Shurmur
Winner: The future starting running back for the Giants. We know it won’t be any player currently on the roster (at least, we pray it’s not). But whomever the Giants either draft or sign walks into a good situation with Shurmur now calling the plays. In nine seasons calling plays as either a head coach or coordinator, he’s had five running backs with more than 265 attempts. He would have had a sixth last year as Vikings rookie Dalvin Cook was on pace for 296 carries before he tore his ACL. And in the three seasons Shurmur’s offenses have finished in the top-10 in points, they were also the only times his teams finished in the top-10 in rush attempts.
Loser: Evan Engram. This isn’t to say Engram will be a bad fantasy choice next year, but he likely won’t be reaching the lofty heights he could have. After finishing his rookie year with 64 receptions for 722 yards and six touchdowns and as fantasy’s fifth-highest-scoring tight end, he will be hard-pressed to top that. Shurmur has had just two seasons where a tight end produced more statistically on the field. In both instances, it was in a season that saw his top running back (2015 with DeMarco Murray; 2016 with Adrian Peterson) fail to top 200 carries either due to injury or ineffectiveness. If the Giants make the running back position a priority, expect Engram to suffer.
Head coach: Jon Gruden
Winner: Derek Carr. Perhaps the most intriguing coaching change this offseason happened in Oakland, where former coach/color commentator Gruden is returning to the Bay. It’s been a decade since Gruden last coached, so it will be hard to glean any sort of trend when it comes to play-calling, with the league such a different place. However, we do know that Gruden has turned other team’s quarterback trash into some pretty decent fantasy treasure. The best example would be Rich Gannon, who came out of nowhere and, starting at age 34, finished as a top-three fantasy quarterback every season he and Gruden were paired together after never finishing in the top-10 prior to the pairing. Even a veteran like Brad Johnson had some of his best years with Gruden, turning in two of his four best fantasy seasons even after he turned 34 years old. Carr will hope that Gruden magic can work on him after a terribly disappointing 2017 that saw him throw for just 3,500 yards and 22 touchdowns after throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns the previous season.
Loser: Derek Carr. While Carr certainly has the most to gain, he also has the most to lose with Gruden. Gruden may be the only coach with more money tied up in himself than his quarterback so he won’t give a second thought to replacing Carr if he needs to. Why would he? For starters, accuracy. Yes, Carr’s finished each of the last three seasons completing over 60 percent of his passes but his PFF adjusted completion percentage (a number that factors in drops but removes balls batted, thrown away, etc) has ranked just 24th, 19th, 17th, and 16th over the course of his career. Additionally, Gruden’s teams have ranked in the top-10 of pass attempts just twice in an 11-year h-ad coaching career. So Carr won’t be a fantasy asset based on volume. Rather, he’ll have to be a lot more accurate and efficient than he has been.
Head coach: Mike Vrabel
Winner: Derrick Henry. We don’t have a lot to go off of when it comes to what offense Vrabel or new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will install. We know Vrabel was a defensive coordinator for exactly one year with the Texans while LaFleur was an offensive coordinator for the Rams for exactly one year. However, for both coaches during their one year as coordinators, their teams focused on the run. In Vrabel’s case, the Texans ranked 11th in rush attempts and just 23rd in pass attempts. Meanwhile LaFleur, who will be calling the plays in Tennessee, was on a Rams team that finished ninth in rush attempts compared to just 24th in pass attempts. Incumbent running back DeMarco Murray could save a lot of money if he’s cut this off-season, which would officially make Derrick Henry the starter. Over his first two seasons of spelling Murray, Henry has rushed 286 times for 1,234 yards (for a 4.3 yards-per-attempt) and 10 touchdowns. The Titans should continue to focus on the run which will be great news for Derrick Henry.
Loser: Corey Davis. Those expecting Davis to make a big fantasy leap in year two might be disappointed now that LaFleur is calling the plays. In his lone year as offensive coordinator, he failed to have a receiver see 100 targets, catch 65 balls, or eclipse 900 yards. The Rams did very well to pass the ball around, counting three of their receivers in the top-33 in fantasy scoring. Yet not one of them among Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, or Sammy Watkins finished better than 27th in standard leagues.